Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Who's the Evilest of Them All?

Walt Disney always knew the value of a good villain.

Maleficent, who haughtily strides into theaters Friday in the guise of Angelina Jolie, is proof of that. This self-proclaimed "Mistress of All Evil" is Disney's most dastardly diva, a woman who could teach Star Wars' dark Emperor a thing or two about fashion and eat Hannibal Lector for breakfast (as a dragon, quite literally). Maybe it's the horns. The evil raven. The fact that her very name seems to mean something like "magnificently bad" (if we're liberal with our Latin/English construction). Clearly, even her parents knew she was up to no good.

Rumor has it that she cuts a more sympathetic figure in this newest of Disney flicks, but part of me hopes that they don't mess with the lady too much. It's nice to have someone to root against—even if it's not always fair.

See, the problem with evil (well, one of the many, many problems with evil) is that it's often quite sneaky. We like to think of it in our stories as something outside of us—something other and ugly and monstrous. But unfortunately, what we think of as evil is really just good twisted up. The ol' Latin prefix of "mal" suggests as much. Our cars malfunction. Our wayward kids are maladjusted. Our bosses are malicious. It suggests that something that once worked just fine broke along the way. It's not right anymore.

We Christians believe that break happened at the very beginning of the world, when sin entered into it and led us all astray. And we're also taught that we all are prone to sin, which means we're all a little broken, too. We've got a malady in us.

We don't like to think about that. We're all the heroes of our own stories, after all. By default, that makes us the good guys. We're Sleeping Beauty and Prince Charming, right? There's no Maleficent in us.

But of course there is. And maybe, just maybe, some of these outward manifestations of evil help us see the darker corners of our own souls.

So with that in mind, here's a completely subjective countdown of my five favorite Disney animated villains—and just what they might be able to teach us, too.

5. Captain Hook. For all his faults, I've always respected the sense of style of Peter Pan's main villain. Not everyone can pull off a hat like that. And honestly, I've always felt a little sorry for the guy. After all, we all might harbor some bitterness if someone fed one of our hands to a crocodile—which, we're told, is exactly what Peter Pan did. (If I was Pan's dad, I would've told him that it's never OK to feed other people's body parts to reptilian carnivores, no matter what.) But where Hook goes awry is that he never, ever lets that misdeed go. He has vowed revenge on Pan for that crocodile snack, no matter how long it takes—and in a place called Never Neverland, that could be a mighty long grudge. Hook's obsession with Pan is a good reminder that forgiveness is an important and healthy aspect of our faith—even when it's really, really hard to forgive.  

4. The Coachman. Pinocchio has so many fantastically bad characters that it's hard to settle on just one: "Honest" John, Stromboli, Monstro the whale … but since I'm morally opposed to whaling and have the upmost respect for puppeteers, I'd like to focus on the Coachman, the rotund fellow who takes Pinocchio off to Pleasure Island. He's the worst kind of villain—a guy who misleads the innocent and then turns them all into donkeys afterwards. For me, the guy's a pretty potent symbol of our own inclinations to slip into temptation and excuse our own bad behavior. We don't need a coachman to take us to Pleasure Island. Most of us can walk there all on our own.

3. The Wicked Queen. The queen in Snow White is Maleficent 1.0, and even after more than 80 years, she's still a potent symbol of evil. But in her own way, she's a dramatic and still jarring zag away from how we typically think of evil. See, we humans have a bias toward beauty. Even modern-day studies suggest that we're more prone to believe pretty people than ugly ones. But here, the evil is found in this uber-glamorous queen (love that black cowl thingy she's got going for her). It's only when she "disguises" herself as an old crone that we see her true nature. And why does she change? Jealousy, plain and simple. The Queen decides to have Snow White killed because her mirror told her that she was prettier than she was. We can all feel a little jealous at times: Someone's always, it seems, a little prettier or stronger or smarter than we are. Sometimes we all need to be reminded that, in God's eyes, we're pretty awesome. If only someone would've told the Queen that true beauty is found on the inside, well, we might've saved a handful of dwarves a lot of angst (though their cottage would probably still be filthy).

2. Chernabog. Of all the Disney villains on the list, Chernabog—the demon at the end of Fantasia—is the only one I actually had nightmares about as a kid. This guy was as bad as they come, what with all the ghosts circling his head and the weird goblins he dumps into the fire and all. He's got claws and wings and the nastiest of scowls. He scared the dickens out of me, and I don't mean Charles. But here's a funny thing about we mortals: The things that scare or repulse us are sometimes the same things that we can be attracted to, sometimes unhealthily so. As a kid, I couldn't get Chernabog out of my mind. I didn't want to be the guy … and yet, the power that he wielded at the top of that mountain was, in a way, pretty enticing to a little boy who went to bed at 8 p.m. No one would make that winged demon eat his beats, that's for sure. Power  can be an, um, powerful temptation for some. And while power in itself isn't all bad (my editor certainly wouldn't think so), it can lead us down some dark, even diabolical paths.

1. Maleficent. If she wants to call herself the Mistress of All Evil, who am I to argue? While she may find a measure of redemption in the new movie, she's really, really bad in Sleeping Beauty—as in a servant-of-the-devil bad. I don’t think it's any accident that Prince Phillip fights the ol' girl with the Sword of Truth and the Shield of Virtue—an echo, perhaps, of Paul's "Armor of God" passage in Ephesians 6. (The shield even has a Christian cross emblazoned on it.) Clearly, Maleficent made some bad choices in her life. But maybe she would've been in a position to make better choices had she, I dunno, not spent her time alone (goblin henchmen don't count) in a castle surrounded by thorns (yes, yes, you know-it-all Disney watchers, the thorns came later. Just go with me here. We're speaking metaphorically.)  I think that maybe, had she spent a little more time with her fellow fairies, she might've turned out differently. Life and faith, after all, are meant to be lived in community. We need people to tell us when we're getting a little, um, weird. And perhaps, with a little more companionship, someone might've ventured to tell her that the whole horned hat thing was a bad fashion choice.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Running on Faith: Breathing

I thought it was just going to be a little training run—another step toward our fall marathon. It was easy to sell the race to Emily, my daughter and training partner. The 13-mile Colfax Half Marathon would go through the zoo, a fire station and some of Denver's prettiest neighborhoods. It'd be a nice change of scenery from our typical training run. Plus, there'd be medals. You can never have too many of those.

You can see us here in the picture, ready for another fun, fantastic run.

And for the first four miles or so, everything was great. The zoo was fun. The neighborhoods were neat. The weather was almost perfect.

And then Emily started feeling sick.

We walked some. Then some more. Instead of counting the miles, I'd scan the streets for porta-potties. Emily was hurting bad. I could tell by how quiet she was. Normally, she talks the miles away on our training runs. But now, during this run, she wasn't speaking. She was fighting too hard with her body to talk, fighting with every step. I'd fill in the void with some mindless patter, hoping to take her mind off things. But nothing I said made her feel a bit better. And so we walked when we had to and ran when we could, listening to each other's footsteps, the sound of the other breathing.

And by mile seven, neither of us was sure it was smart to keep pushing on.

"I don't want to quit," she told me.

"I know you don't," I said. "I know."

A half-mile later, when we hit the fire station, we decided to call it. I dialed my wife Wendy and asked if she'd be able to pick us up along the way.

She couldn't: The car was in the middle of the race traffic. We were on our own.

But just when I feared things might get really messy, Emily rallied. By mile 10, she was feeling better. By 12, the only things wrong with her was her foot and knee and hip—the normal aches and pains that you sometimes get when you run a ways. And by the time she was collecting all her "free" loot after we crossed the finish line—including the medal—she joked, "this is the best day ever!"

 In these little running/religion musings of mine, we've talked about how sometimes both faith and a long run can be a struggle, and that's particularly true of when we're in pain. Our relationship with God can be tricky even the best of times. But when we're suffering or grieving, it can feel nearly impossible. The pain can be overwhelming. We can feel like quitting.

I've done quite a few stories about grieving and suffering over the years, and one central question has been at the center of many of them: How can the rest of us help? If we know someone who's dealing with a crushing loss or battling illness or suffering from indescribable pain, how can we carry a little of that burden? What can we do to ease the discomfort?

The experts always seem to come back to the same, sad fact. Sometimes we can't. We can't always take away the pain. We can't speed up the grieving process. Some things, they just hurt.

But even though we can't take away the pain or speed up the recovery, we can still be there … in body and spirit. We can walk, or run, alongside them. We don't have to talk. Sometimes, it's better if we don't. Just to be with someone—to show them they're not alone—can be a comfort, as small as it might seem.

For one of those stories, I talked with a man who had terminal brain cancer. The man, a lifelong Christian, made a startling omission to me—one so different from the feel-good Christianese that people often wrap themselves in. He said there were times when he prayed that he felt … nothing. God, his great comfort and comforter, was silent.

He added that he's had some incredible times of prayer, too, but him talking about the silence of God struck me. I've felt that same silence sometimes. There are dark nights when God's love seems to cover you like a blanket, but others where the blanket is gone. There is no solace found in that dark, quiet space. No spiritual platitudes to savor, no prayer to serve as salve.

But in those moments, I sometimes think back to an old Lifehouse song called "Breathing." It's a psalm, in a way, that patiently tries to accept those silences, to make sense of them and even embrace them. The chorus goes:

I am hanging on every word you say
And even if you don't want to speak tonight
That's all right, all right with me
'Cause I want nothing more than to sit
Outside heaven's door and listen to you breathing
It's where I want to be.

Emily and I spent a good chunk of the Colfax Half listening to each other breathe. It wasn't fun for either of us (and especially not for Em). But maybe there was something special about those painful few miles, anyway. Emily knew that, run or walk or crawl or stop, I'd be with her no matter what. I felt the strange sense of gratitude of sharing a truly, if painfully, unforgettable time with my daughter—a time beyond smiles and laughter, a time beyond words. It was a time when breathing was as eloquent as it got. And it was enough.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Godzilla: Trust Issues

My Plugged In review of Godzilla starts out like this:

Hey, we all have problems. You got 'em, I got 'em. Maybe you're failing algebra or struggling to pay the bills. Maybe you're feeling a little flu-ish at the moment. Maybe your job is in jeopardy. Maybe your movie review is due right now and you're still trying to think of something clever to say. Our lives are never, ever problem free.
 But some problems are bigger than others.

Back in 1954, Godzilla—the original movie that made the big guy so big—not only was a huge problem for the people of Japan, he represented one. Back then, the huge dinosaur-like beast was disaster incarnate, awakened by a nuclear blast. He was a not-so-subtle metaphor of nuclear destruction and terror—a horror that the Japanese people, with Hiroshima and Nagasaki still fresh in their collective memory, knew better than anyone else in the world.

As Toho studios continued to produce more Godzilla movies, it introduced ever-more exotic monsters, many of whom had a bit of symbolism attached them. Mothra (who first appeared in 1961) was almost a benevolent nature god, protecting the world and its many life forms from forces that would seek to do it harm. (Some have postulated that Mothra is symbolic for religionitself, or even Christianity with Mothra's penchant for death and rebirth.) Hedorah, a.k.a. the Smog Monster (from 1971) had some obvious environmental implications. Et cetera.

Even in this latest Godzilla is more than just a super-sized cash grab. This is, on one level, an environmental fable: Monsters called MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Objects) were uncovered by a hasty mining operation in the Philippines and involved in a horrific nuclear power-plant “earthquake” (reminiscent of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster of 2011). They unleash devastating electromagnetic pulses that wreak havoc on the grid and snack on radiation. At one point, Japanese scientist Dr. Serizawa tells us that “the arrogance of man is that nature is in our control, and not the other way around.”

“You have to ask yourself, ‘What does Godzilla represent?’” Director Gareth Edwards told The Daily Beast. “The thing we kept coming up with is that he’s a force of nature, and if nature had a mascot, it would be Godzilla. So what do the other creatures represent? They represent man’s abuse of nature, and the idea is that Godzilla is coming to restore balance to something mankind has disrupted.”

But whatever the stated symbolism, there’s no question these monsters represent problems. In fact, they are, both literally and metaphorically, huge problems—especially for those in the path of their huge descending feet. They’re too big to deal with, really. You just don’t sit down and reason with a 300-foot monster.

I think we all know the feeling. We know what it feels like to be faced with an issue that seems almost entirely out of our control. We face plenty of monsters in our lifetime. Sickness. Finances. A broken relationship. Depression. These problems are terrible no matter what, but when we feel like we’re powerless to do anything about them, it’s so much worse. Sometimes, it feels like we’re at their mercy. Helpless. Disposable, even, like a Godzilla extra. I’m in a place like that right now. It’s not very comfortable, feeling like you’re sitting in one of those trains that a Japanese monster might pick up and eat like a Twinkie. But most of us have been there. And if we haven’t yet, we probably will one day.

In the movie, we see folks try to take control. The Japanese try to keep one of the RUTOs contained in a deserted nuclear power plant, but that doesn’t work. The American military wonders if they might bomb these monsters away, but that has its problems, too. They’re like we are. We need to feel like we’re in control. We have to do something. Waiting around isn’t in our nature.

But sometimes, God tells us that that’s exactly what we have to do.

“But they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,” we read in Isaiah 40:31. “they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.” In Psalms 33:20-22, we read, “Our soul waits for the Lord; he is our help and our shield. For our heart is glad in him, because we trust in his holy name. Let your steadfast love, O Lord, be upon us, even as we hope in you.”

It’s not comfortable to wait. It’s not very satisfying to trust. The Bible’s full of folks who wonder how long God’ll keep them hanging on. But that’s what God wants us to do sometimes. When things are out of our control, we’re asked to wait and trust and hope and pray.

That’s pretty much what Serizawa tells his anxious co-stars. Instead of trying to fix the situation, just let the monsters take care of themselves. “Let them fight,” he says. I doubt Serizawa’s a Christian, but he too has a kind of faith: A faith that nature will figure it out and put everything back in balance.

In the movie, that message gets incredibly muddled: Seems to me that if nature wanted to find some sort of “natural” balance, she might side with the gigantic MUTOs, who were here way before us and are simply doing “natural” stuff—eating and laying eggs. Think to long about Godzilla as a nature fable, and it falls apart.

But when we think of it through the realm of our faith, it works better (at least a little). We too can be faced with problems that tear our world apart. We too are asked to put our faith and trust in something outside ourselves—a being we can barely comprehend. And that can be a scary, scary thing. We’re not used to relinquishing control.

But sometimes, it’s the only thing we can do. When our problems grow too big, we have to rely on the strength of God, and trust that even while our worlds might not come out unscathed, He’ll be with us—no matter what. And when the credits roll, we’ll realize that all we needed was God all along.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Growing Up Godzilla

Godzilla will stomp into theaters this weekend, doing his part to tear down lots of cities and rake in lots of money. I've seen it, and later you can check out my review at Plugged In come Friday and some extra thoughts right here that very same day. But in advance of the big day, let me tell you about my very first Godzilla movie.

I was a Godzilla fan before I ever saw one of his movies. Our school library had a series of books about classic movie monsters, and when I was around 9 or 10, I checked out the book on Godzilla about 17 times. I knew all the characters: Rodan, Mothra, Ghidorah, the works. Their city-stomping ways fascinated me, and I wonder if maybe these Japanese Kaiju have always held a special charm for kids (as frightening as they’re supposed to be). They're big. They're bad. They can destroy whole cities like we might tear down a stack of blocks. Such overwhelming power. Such mighty feats of strength. For kids who don't have much of either, Godzilla and company would be pretty attractive. No one would ever send Ghidorah to bed early. Godzilla would never get bullied on the playground.

No wonder Godzilla—Japan's ultimate scaly villain in 1954—morphed into a hero after a movie or two. Kids needed the big guy in their corner.

When I was in fourth grade, we heard that Godzilla vs. Monster Zero was coming to a local, late-night horror-movie showcase called Shock Theater. The movie wouldn't start 'til 10:30 and probably end after midnight, but all my friends with permissive parents said they'd be watching. And so I asked—no, begged—my parents if, just this once, I could stay up and watch it, too.

In a complete departure from the parenting principles I'd grown up with, they said yes.

It was a stunner, and I felt curiously grown up. Never mind that my dad was going to watch it with me, or that a couple of my stuffed animals were on call, too—just in case I got scared. The fact that I was going to stay up past midnight—watching Shock Theater, no less—was a big marker on my way to adulthood. Today, late-night television. Tomorrow, the driver's license.

It proved to be a terrifying night.

It wasn't the movie: Monster Zero, I think, was kinda lame for a kid looking for some Shock Theater-like thrills. But somewhere after Monster Zero (Ghidorah) destroyed one city but before he destroyed this other city, my dad went to bed. Went. To. Bed. Never had I been shouldered with such hefty responsibility, to be awake and safeguard the house alone before. It was, again, a strangely thrilling moment … and absolutely horrible, too. When he said goodnight and left me alone in our gloomy basement family room, I felt like I was being treated like an adult, and I knew I was nowhere up to the challenge.
I watched the movie to the credits, walked to the television and turned it off. The house was as still as a tomb. I flipped off the lights to the family room and watched it go black. I inched up the hallway stairs, straining my ears for the sound of any strange skittering sounds or raspy breathing, then turned off that light, too. My heart was pounding. I was clutching my stuffed bear 'til the stuffing nearly oozed out his ears. But room by room, I turned off the lights—turning some on along the way so I'd never be in total darkness—until I reached the safety of my bedroom.
It was the first time I realized what an empty, dark house really looked like. Felt like. Before, my parents were always on patrol as I softly fell asleep. Tonight, I was on my own.
I felt like an adult, and it was horrifying. I was not strong or powerful like a movie monster, ready to deal with invaders from Planet X. I was scared. It was like I had a premonition of adulthood. Someday, I'll need to turn off the lights by myself all the time, I thought. What an awful thought
I suppose I should say something spiritual here. Maybe how we're all children of God and we can just relax, 'cause he'll watch over us in our metaphorical dark houses. He’s always on patrol. And I think that's true. But sometimes, God's presence can be a difficult thing to feel. Sometimes we can feel very alone in a dark and too-quiet world. We feel the pressures around us. The fear pressing in on us. Out from us.
When we're children, I think there's a time when we imagine that adults don't get scared. If only that were true.
But we deal, I guess. We have to. And I think with God's help, we learn how to cope. We're a little like the folks in Godzilla movies, maybe. The ones who aren’t screaming. We're surrounded by forces and fears we can't control and barely comprehend. But we move forward—with fear, yes, but with hope. Hope that becomes a wary confidence. Even courage. And maybe that hope is something that God gives us. Maybe our worlds will look pretty bad at times, like something big and fire-breathing trashed it all. Maybe we'll see some serious destruction when the sun comes up. But the sun does come up. And with each new day we're given another chance to help put things right.
I don't know whether I can blame Monster Zero for this, but when I was in junior high, I noticed something interesting in my sleep patterns. If I was spending the night at a friends' house or at summer camp or something, I could never go to sleep until I was sure that everyone else was. I wanted—needed, really—to be the last guy awake. And I'm still that way. I won't ever go to sleep if there's someone in the house is stirring still—watching a movie or reading a book. It's physically impossible for me to do so.

I'm the adult now. And maybe that night with Godzilla and Monster Zero taught me that, as an adult, I need to be vigilant—the guy on patrol--because no one else is going to do it for me. I'm the one who turns out the lights.